Just twice she has played the main draw in one of the biggest tournaments on the women’s tour, one of its four Premier Mandatories: she reached the quarters in 2016 and won the title last year—her biggest victory to date.
She did it in style, too, beating current No1 Simona Halep, No8 Venus Williams, and No2 Caroline Wozniacki.
But winning such a big title, and the 1000 points that go with it, is a double-edged sword. Konta broke into the top 10 with the Miami victory, and went on to make her first semi-final at Wimbledon. However, come Miami this year, she needed to find her best again, or she faced slipping outside the top 20.
Because since her standout run at Wimbledon, Konta had begun to find wins hard to come by. There were injuries, loss of confidence, and many lost matches. In six tournaments, she got beyond the first match only once, in Cincinnati, and what looked like certain qualification for the WTA Finals in Singapore was halted when she withdrew from the Kremlin Cup with a foot injury.
A change of coach in the off season did not immediately bear fruit, either, with wins here and there. She arrived in Miami on the back of a tough opening loss in Indian Wells and outside the top 10, and with those 1000 points removed, she was now facing a possible slide to the mid 20s.
Many seeds did fall early. The two finalists in Indian Wells, unseeded champion Naomi Osaka and runner-up Daria Kasatkina, did not make Round 3, and the top two Miami seeds, Halep and Wozniacki, also lost their openers—and the latter was in Konta’s quarter.
However, Konta had more immediate matches to win before a bottom segment devoid of all four seeds, became a factor. She negotiated her first hurdle, No71 Kirsten Flipkens, comfortably, 6-4 6-3, and that set a meeting with the No22 seed, Elise Mertens.
Now she took her place on centre stage, Stadium Court, where she left as champion 12 months ago. And she turned on the form in suitable fashion.
After a quick exchange of breaks, the Konta serve kicked in and she broke in the fifth and seventh games to ensure the first set, 6-2, in under half an hour.
The Briton was playing with power, depth, and flat angles to penetrate the Mertens defence, and she was even more effective in the second set. The Belgian held her opening game, but Konta did not allow her another, in a fine serving display that carried her to a 6-1 victory in just over an hour. The statistics were solid, too, 23 winners to just 17 unforced errors.
The Briton has one of the biggest smiles in tennis, and she beamed to fans who had turned out for this morning match—but it was still just after midday by the time she had finished, and the court was very far from full. Even so, she thanked the assembled spectators for coming out and supporting her.
She continued: “I love playing here, so many good memories from last year… I definitely have a great relationship with this tournament. I haven’t played it many times, but I’ve done well here.”
She would have to wait some time to discover her next opponent, as Venus Williams and Kiki Bertens played out a long, topsy-turvy match.
Williams, who won the first of her three Miami titles 20 years ago, seemed to be in cruise control as she raced to a 5-0 lead in the opening set, but her serve went AWOL, and the Dutch woman broke, and broke again, to level. Not content with that, Bertens broke once more in the 12th game to steal the set, 7-5.
As the oldest woman in the draw, and with a semi run in Indian Wells in her 37-year-old legs, Williams did not want to be facing a long three-setter in the humid heat of Miami, but that was now the prospect. She broke at the start of the second set, too, only for Bertens to break back. Then Williams endured an 11-minute service game, but the Dutch woman broke through for a 3-2 lead.
Williams was not about to back off: She broke straight back, held for 4-3, and broke again. She levelled the match 6-3: They had already been on court for almost two hours.
Into the third set, almost every game continued to go to deuce. Williams saved break point with a bold net charge and volley winner, but faced another break point at the net, this time beaten by a perfect sliced pass. Bertens did not miss her chance again, and thumped a forehand to take a 3-1 lead.
Still Williams fought back to break, and again she faced deuce on her own serve, and again Bertens fired a huge forehand to break, 5-3. The Dutch player had only to hold serve, but Williams took to the net and broke yet again. This time, she held, and brought her big backhand to the table: Two winners, a break, and she would serve for the match.
Could the former champion pull out victory two and a half hours after serving for the first set at 5-1? Of course she could: a forehand winner, a couple of huge serves, and she was into the fourth round. It earned her—and Bertens—a standing ovation.
Konta recalled playing Williams on her way to the title match in Miami last year, and had good reason to sound upbeat. She had got the better of Williams in three of their six matches, all three of them on hard courts.
So unlike her opening Sunday match, Konta can be sure that the crowds will be out in force for her next against the home favourite of many, many years’ standing: former champion Williams against the defending champion.
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BIOGRAPHY: Nabil Fekir
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